Aruvi: The film of the year

Aruvi’s a curious name for a female character. And then, as the film ended, it dawned on me. Director Arun Prabhu Purushothaman had likely named her so as a measure of how much you’ll be tearing up during the course of the film. Everybody, including yours truly, was reduced to a teary mess, and yet, I found this experience to be rather unique. Usually, I’m well-aware of why I’m crying — as most people are, I imagine. It’s never a surprise, but some moments in Aruvi are so tender that I realised I was tearing up, only as a rebel tear streaked down. And it happened again and again. It all made for an awkward exit from the film, when the lights switched on. Everybody carefully avoided eye-contact; nobody wanted to be seen having been this vulnerable. And yet, curiously, it’s almost the very point at the heart of Aruvi and its protagonist, who revels in unmasking the vulnerabilities of those around her. It’s probably why Truth or Dare seems to be her favourite game.

Director: Arun Prabhu Purushothaman
Cast: Aditi Balan, Lakshmi Gopalswami, Shwetha Shekar

Aruvi is all fire and ice, and Aditi Balan plays her beautifully. One moment, she is fiery enough to put a bullet into another man. And the next, notwithstanding being surrounded by policemen, she plays truth or dare with her hostages. The director hints at this in an early scene when as a student, she asks another if they can play this game. I suppose it’s only natural that she be smitten with it given it’s a ‘truth’ — one her family doesn’t believe in — that results in her ostracisation. It’s ‘dare’ — a desire to laugh and cry, to fiercely live — that keeps her going, despite the horrible misfortune destiny throws at her life.

The powerful cinematic device employed at the heart of this film is montage. When armed with the blithe music and the imperfectly perfect vocals, even the sad moments in the film feel light — and yet, strangely deep. You first get the snapshots when Aruvi (Aditi Balan in a powerful debut) is shown to be protected and content with her family. Even offhanded shots like little Aruvi crying alone make great impact, when you’re shown the why later. Montages are again how her relationship with Emily (Anjali Varathan) gets established. Light, cheerful music in the background accentuate visuals of them window-shopping, ogling at men, getting drenched in an aruvi… It totally works. The strongest relationships, after all, may have a big moment at its heart, but it’s mounted on a lifetime of little moments — the kind shown in Aruvi — that aren’t special by themselves. The individual moments may be drops of affection, but as a collage, they are cascades of a lifetime bond.

Perhaps I’ll remember Aruvi the most for a certain tenderness that seeps through its story, through its dialogue. You know how there are scenes when characters break down, and you take it in from a distance, focussing on their flaring notstrils, on their monologue created with perfect grammar? There are at least two instances of characters talking about their experiences — one before an impending death — and I challenge you not to feel invested. A character struggles to open up as she shoots herself on her cell phone. It’s the irony of our times — a device that connects you to everybody, but yet, leaves you feeling more isolated than ever. What also helps is that the character’s monologue isn’t perfectly scripted. She constantly interrupts herself with “I don’t know what to say”. She, ever a people’s person, is intimidated by the prospect of opening up to a phone, an inanimate object. And then, she gets herself to say perhaps the film’s deepest line: “Enakku sariyaa vaazhaliyonnu bayama irukku.” Aruvi is heart and soul in cinema.

And the film doesn’t judge. You are even introduced to the soul of lesser characters — of which one is a rapist. I’d be tempted to problematise this humanisation of a rapist, but that perhaps indeed is the point Arun Prabhu Purushothaman and his protagonist, Aruvi, are trying to run home. Aruvi’s about humans, and how gloriously complex they are. They are at once both good and bad, both prey and predator. In that sense, Aruvi’s almost seraphic, almost supernal in her ability to see the good in the bad. The problem is, it leaves you wondering if she can even spot bad. You can call her a naïve fool. Or you could call her a saint, which perhaps is why it’s gut-wrenching to see her break down eventually. Perhaps because I’m not remotely as forgiving as Aruvi, I had trouble digesting how three rapists are shown to eventually care for her. It feels like they’re let off too easily.

Aruvi’s a film with a lot of memorable characters. Has there been another more inclusive portrayal of a transgender than in this film? Also impactful are all the characters involved in the reality show, Solvadhelaam Sathyam (a parody of a popular show you already know). The assistant director who wants to break out as a filmmaker. The director who can’t think beyond TRPs. His assistant who gets you laughing each time he says, “Rolllllling sir.” The security guard who’s old and scared, and yet so much fun when he gets playful. That stretch is probably the stand-out feature of Aruvi, and when it gets over, there’s a real danger that the film could likely enter a more serious, indulgent zone. But the director allays those fears with some enterprising ideas across the board. A gun introduced as a family relic comes in handy at a crucial time. A parody… gets parodied. A father’s impending dismissal of his daughter is conveyed through his return to a former habit. And most enterprising of all, an assistant director’s lukewarm story comes to life in a wonderful, heartwarming way. I realised it when another rogue tear streaked down my face. It’s a perfect title, really.

This review was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.

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